50 coming up, but Hall’s well
Nine newsreader Jo Hall tells Darren Devlyn she sees no evidence of sexism in the newsroom
NEWSREADERS, the theory goes, must be capable of a demeanour appropriate to the task of reporting tragedy, triumph and distress.
The best of newsreaders are perceived as reliable, credible and trustworthy. They project empathy, reassurance and warmth, but are calm in the face of disaster. They resist overt displays of emotion.
The standing of a newsreader in a network’s hierarchy is evident when you consider networks spend millions each year on audience research in their desperation to ascertain why their news service, and newsreaders, either appeal to, or repel viewers.
With few exceptions in the first four decades of TV, newsreaders were male— a result of networks believing viewers saw men as stronger authority figures than women.
Jo Hall, Helen Kapalos, Jennifer Keyte, Mary Kostakidis, Jennifer Hansen and Sandra Sully are on an extensive list of women who’ve made their mark over the past 10 years, but there remain critics who are adamant rampant sexism and the ageist philosophies of TV networks continue to make it difficult for women to endure and be taken seriously at a news or current-affairs desk — particularly as they edge towards 50.
Reporter and newsreader Christine Spiteri has accused Nine and its news boss John Westacott of offensive and sexist behaviour and of breaching her contract— charges vigorously denied by Westacott and the network. The matter goes back to court on July 18.
The Spiteri case follows former Channel 10 newsreader Tracey Spicer’s recent settling of a dispute with that network regarding her dismissal, with Ten denying she was moved on because of her age and family commitments.
Ten also parted on poor terms with Hansen. Though Hansen left after a breakdown in contractual negotiations, it’s believed the network was concerned about her having a highprofile social life.
Kim Watkins settled after a maternity-leave dispute with Nine in 2005, and Kostakidis, highly regarded for her poise as a newsreader, left SBS last August, insisting she was forced to present many of the soft stories in a dumbed-down bulletin.
Jana Wendt, a former Ten newsreader and 60 Minutes reporter, recently bought into the debate about women in news and current affairs, pondering if female newsreaders might be required to present ‘‘as porn queens in pinstripes’’.
Jo Hall, who’s been at Nine for 29 years and reading the weekend news bulletin for the past 10, says she can’t make sense of persistent accusations the network has a ‘‘boys’ club’’ mentality and that women there are treated like ‘‘play things’’. Hall, who turns 50 next Wednesday, believes there’s indisputable evidence Nine respects and nurtures female talent.
‘‘I think the landscape has changed, and this idea of women having a useby date, I don’t think it exists,’’ Hall says of her experiences at the network.
‘‘Nine has embraced women as they’ve gotten older. We have amazing (40-plus) women here such as Liz Hayes, Tracy Grimshaw, Kerri-Anne Kennerley.
‘‘When I first came here there weren’t that many women in management roles so that probably gave it a feeling of being a boys’ club. But I don’t see much evidence of it now and I’m not toeing some corporate line and trying to be politically correct by saying that. It’s genuinely how I feel.
‘‘The boys’ club thing relates to a time of long lunches and being in the pub. It’s different now.’’
Nine’s Melbourne news director Michael Venus speaks forcefully when asked to address accusations the network has a poor reputation when it comes to treatment of women in its workforce.
‘‘This (boys’ club label) is crap and annoying and the perpetuation of a myth that has taken on a life of its own,’’ Venus says.
‘‘The importance of women in this organisation is second to none. Jo is a trailblazer here. Women are such a vital ingredient in our success.
‘‘We have a mini baby boom here at the moment, which is wonderful. (Reporters) Carolyne Randoe and Rachael Rollo (are pregnant) and we’ll work closely with them to ensure their experience is not lost when they go on leave and work in with them on rostering arrangements when they come back.’’
Network newsreaders, male and female, are carefully groomed. Stylists and wardrobe departments are charged with the responsibility of ensuring their presenters appear cleancut and inoffensive. A switchboard lighting up with complaints about a newsreader’s wardrobe or hairstyle, for example, can be a cause for concern because networks are acutely aware such disapproval can prompt viewers to switch channels.
Hall accepts that because TV is a visual medium, you have to expect judgment on how you look.
‘‘It may be naive of me, but I think you have to have an appeal on some level,’’ she says.
‘‘As far as age is concerned, my age has not been relevant and I haven’t been made to feel it’s relevant until now ( Guide’s interest in her turning 50).
‘‘I don’t have age issues. The one time it has become an issue is now, though on a positive level.’’
Boned, the title of a novel inspired by Jessica Rowe’s traumatic exit from Nine, tells the fictional story of women trying to survive in the Australian TV industry.
It adds weight to the theory that women in TV face extraordinary pressure to grow old disgracefully — living a life where you can’t eat for fear of stacking on the kilograms and where it’s accepted you’ll need botox or cosmetic surgery the moment a furrow appears in your brow.
HALL feels no such pressure, confident she can continue to prosper in her career on her own terms.
‘‘I’m sure there are some women who feel it necessary to make changes and it’s fantastic Kerri-Anne (Kennerly) came out and said she did it because she wanted to.
‘‘It’s great if you want to and you feel happy in life. I would hope I’d never feel pressured into doing something like it. I’m not saying I’d never do it, you should never say never, but I wouldn’t ever want to feel like I had to do it.
‘‘Everyone has special things about their face that are unique. My fear would be that I wouldn’t look like me any more. I want to look like Jo.
‘‘It is really important how you look on TV and that goes for men, too. People (on the street) will say things like, ‘You had red on the other night and you looked horrible’.
Laughing, Hall adds: ‘‘It’s unbelievable how brutal people can be.’’
Ratings, however, suggest Hall is not short of fans.
In 2007, Nine’s Sunday news was the highest-rating news service in Melbourne, even though Channel 7 had, and maintains, AFL coverage as its bulletin lead-in.
On Sundays in 2008, Nine has won nine ratings weeks and Seven has won seven.
No stopping Jo: Jo Hall has been at Nine for 29 years and reading the weekend news bulletin for the past 10.